Germany on Wednesday paved the way to legalising the purchase and possession of small amounts of marijuana for recreational use, a step which would leave it with one of the most liberal cannabis policies in Europe.
The emblematic project will still need to gain approval from the European Union and the German parliament before entering the statute book, expected in 2024.
But the move marks a watershed moment in the drug debate in the EU’s biggest economy, and amounts to a compromise between advocates of across-the-board legalisation and critics who raise public health concerns.
Under the draft plans, production and supply of cannabis would be “permitted in a licensed and state-controlled framework”, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said at a news conference.
Consumers would be allowed to purchase a maximum of between “20 and 30 grams” of dried cannabis leaf for their private consumption, with supplies distributed through a network of authorised stores and pharmacies, according to the draft approved by cabinet ministers.
The major reform to Germany’s drugs policy was intended to deliver “better youth and health protection”, Lauterbach said.
The current legal framework had fallen short, he said, leading to a “flourishing black market” and encouraging criminality.
“A repressive drugs policy has failed,” Justice Minister Marco Buschmann said.
Legalisation would mean “better quality products and therefore better health protection, as well as relief for our law enforcement, so that they can concentrate on more important things”, Buschmann wrote on Twitter.
The unregulated trade in cannabis would be “displaced” by the introduction of a framework for legal distribution, Lauterbach said.
Growing cannabis crops and manufacturing products will be permitted to licensed businesses in Germany, with their sale taxed. Adults will also have the option to keep up to three plants for their own supply.
Under the plans, advertisements for the drug would be banned, while packaging should be kept “neutral”.
The government would also examine a possible restriction on the maximum strength of cannabis products sold to adults under 21 years, due to concerns over the health effects for younger users.
However, a general limit on the concentration of THC, the main psychoactive substance in the plant, would not apply.
Any eventual decriminalisation of cannabis would be reviewed after four years to assess its “societal impact”, according to the draft proposals.
Germany will present its plans to the European Commission for approval before moving ahead with any rule changes.
“We are in the process of checking whether the key points we have laid out today are compatible with international and European law,” Lauterbach said, a point which would be discussed with officials in Brussels.
The minister expressed his confidence that the legalisation plans would be approved but said he did not want to “downplay” the risks of an EU stop.
Lauterbach did not provide a detailed timeline for the draft proposals to be turned into law but estimated that legalisation could come by 2024.
Were the reforms put through, Germany would join a short list of countries to have legalised cannabis, including Malta, Canada and Uruguay.
In the Netherlands, seen as a pioneer on cannabis policy, the sale, possession and consumption of small amounts of the drug has been tolerated by authorities since 1976.
Legalisation of cannabis was one of the flagship policies agreed by Germany’s coalition partners — the Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP — when they formed a government at the end of last year.
For a long time, the Social Democrats opposed a change to the law, with Lauterbach himself admitting to changing his mind on legalisation.
The opposition conservatives, however, described the government’s plans to legalise cannabis as “wrong and dangerous”.
The health risks associated with cannabis were “not sufficiently considered” in the draft paper, the conservatives’ parliamentary spokesman for health Tino Sorge told the Funke media group.